By Jonathan Gault
March 11, 2020
In a year that saw several top talents skip USA Indoors to run elsewhere — and mind-numbingly predictable races between the athletes who did show up — it’s nice to know you can still count on the NCAA championships.
We can’t say exactly where the drama will come from, but part of the NCAA meet’s appeal lies in its unpredictability. Who would have had Josh Kerr destroying Edward Cheserek in the mile in 2017? Or three teams running faster than the 4×400 world record in 2018? Or Danae Rivers going from fifth to first in the final 50 meters to win the 800 in 2019? (Okay, we did kind of call that last one).
NCAAs also serves as the launching point for future superstars. Clayton Murphy began 2016 as the NCAA indoor champion and ended it as the Olympic bronze medalist at 800 meters. Grant Holloway began his path to World Championship gold in 2019 with a pair of NCAA indoor titles in the 60 and 60 hurdles. Chances are a few 2020 Olympic medalists will be in action at this weekend’s NCAA indoor meet in Albuquerque. We just don’t know who they are yet.
Despite our Ivy League connections, LetsRun is braving the coronavirus threat and will have boots on the ground in Albuquerque beginning on Thursday. We began with a look at the men’s mid-d and distance events on Tuesday; you’ll find our look at the women’s mid-d and distance events below.
Women’s 800: Is Dani Jones for real in the 800? She’ll have her hands full with Penn’s Nia Akins
(prelims Friday 9:10 p.m. ET, final Saturday 7:40 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Nia Akins SR Penn 2:00.71 2 Carley Thomas FR Washington 2:02.75 3 Amber Tanner SR Georgia 2:03.02 4 Michaela Meyer SR Delaware 2:03.40 5 Dani Jones SR Colorado 2:03.58 6 Laurie Barton JR Clemson 2:04.04 7 Katy-Ann McDonald SO LSU 2:04.59 8 Susan Ejore SR Oregon 2:04.77 9 Lindsey Rudden JR Mich State 2:04.89 10 Brooke Fazio JR Richmond 2:04.95 11 Andrea Foster SR Clemson 2:04.98 12 Mallory King JR Iowa 2:05.12 13 Martha Bissah SR Norfolk Stat 2:05.38 14 Alyssa Brewer SO USC 2:05.68 15 Aziza Ayoub JR Ohio State 2:05.80 16 Charokee Young FR Texas A&M 2:05.80
When I first scrolled through the NCAA entry lists for Dani Jones‘ name, I assumed she’d be attempting some sort of double. I quickly found her name in the mile — as the top seed by over five seconds, she was hard to miss — but she wasn’t entered in the 3,000 (the event in which she won her first individual NCAA title, in 2017), nor was she listed in the 5,000 (the event in which she won her most recent NCAA title, outdoors in 2019).
Well, I concluded, she must be doing the mile and DMR.
Had I scrolled up from the mile entries, I would have found Jones’ name a second time. I just hadn’t thought to look there, because no one runs the 800/mile double at NCAAs.
Well, no one until Jones.
Logistically, it’s a nightmare. The women’s mile prelims come at 7:35 p.m. ET on Friday. Jones should breeze through. But for someone like Jones — the fifth seed with a season’s best of 2:04.38 (altitude-converted to 2:03.58) — the 800 prelims 95 minutes later will require close to maximum effort.
Assuming she makes both finals, she’ll have to turn around and do it again on Saturday: the mile final at 6:20 p.m. ET, with the 800 final to follow at 7:40.
Four tough races in the span of just over 24 hours. This sort of workload isn’t uncommon at a conference meet, but it’s exceptionally rare at NCAAs.
Why take on the mile/800 double? Who knows? Colorado isn’t in the hunt for a team title. But it will be a fun storyline to follow — certainly more entertaining than if Jones was running the mile only, where she would have been a humongous favorite.
Jones would make a boatload of history should she win both events. No woman in NCAA history has ever won NCAA titles at 800 and 5,000 meters, nor has any won titles at 800 meters and cross country. There just isn’t much overlap in the skill sets for the events.
In addition, a double win would make Jones the most decorated distance runner in the storied history of the University of Colorado. Currently, Jenny Simpson and Adam Goucher sit atop that list with four individual NCAA titles each, with Jones in a tie for third at three (2017 indoor 3k, 2018 XC, 2019 outdoor 5k) with Kara Goucher and Emma Coburn (Jones also anchored CU’s DMR to a win in 2017). Two wins this weekend could take Jones to five — more than any other Buffalo.
All this is fun to contemplate, but it overlooks a key question: can she actually win both?
Unfortunately for Jones, the answer is probably no.
Even with the 800 on her plate, Jones remains a strong favorite in the mile. Athletes try the mile-DMR double all the time, and assuming Mark Wetmore isn’t crazy enough to triple Jones in the DMR as well, Jones bouncing back from the mile/800 prelims won’t be much different from someone recovering from the mile/DMR.
The problem is that Jones’ toughest race — the 800 final — is also her final race of the weekend, and comes just 80 minutes after the mile final. Even fresh, Jones would have trouble with this field, but with a mile in her legs? Good luck. Realistically, she has a better chance of missing the 800 final than winning it.
It’s not just the quick turnaround, however. It’s the women Jones must beat. With reigning 800 champ Danae Rivers opting for the mile, the top returner is Penn’s Nia Akins, who was 2nd at NCAAs indoors and outdoors in 2019. She proceeded to finish 7th at USAs last summer and has been on fire indoors — her 2:00.71 at BU on February 14 was an overall PB of almost a second and just .02 off Jazmine Fray‘s NCAA indoor record and ranks her 7th in the world for 2020. After losing the NCAA title in the final meters last year, the senior will be eager to make amends.
Akins is the top seed by over two seconds, but she could be beaten. In fact, the #2 seed, Washington freshman Carley Thomas, did beat Akins handily when they raced at the Armory back on January 25. Thomas, who turned 19 in December, is a big-time talent. In 2018 — the equivalent of the summer after her junior year of high school — she took silver in the 800 at the World U20 champs for Australia and ran 2:01.13. This year, in the first two indoor races of her life, she has beaten Akins and run 2:02.75.
JG prediction: I’ll say Jones ma kes the final, but doesn’t finish in the top three. After two runner-up finishes in 2019, it’s Akins’ time. She’s your champion in 2020.
Women’s mile: Dani Jones is a big favorite, but could NCAA 800 champ Danae Rivers spring the upset?
(prelims Friday 7:35 p.m. ET, final Saturday 6:20 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Dani Jones SR Colorado 4:27.88 2 Danae Rivers SR Penn State 4:32.95 3 Julia Heymach JR Stanford 4:33.37 4 Sarah Edwards SR Virginia Tech 4:34.28 5 Petronela Simiuc SR Toledo 4:34.59 6 Kathryn Gillespie SR Texas 4:34.64 7 Gabrielle Jennings SR Furman 4:34.74 8 Carina Viljoen SR Arkansas 4:35.33 9 Abbe Goldstein JR Harvard 4:35.70 10 Lotte Black JR Rhode Island 4:36.35 11 Millie Howard SR Temple 4:36.37 12 Krissy Gear JR Arkansas 4:36.59 13 Maudie Skyring JR FL State 4:37.26 14 Christina Aragon JR Stanford 4:37.30 15 Anna Juul SO Harvard 4:37.50 16 Katie Wasserman SR Columbia 4:37.55
Dani Jones has won four NCAA titles (including Colorado’s DMR victory in ’17) but none at her best distance, the 1500/mile, where she owns stellar PBs of 4:07.28 and 4:27.88. That should change this weekend.
Jones’ 4:27 at Millrose made her the 6th-fastest collegian of all time, but she has more than just a gaudy PB. Anyone who watched any of Jones’ previous NCAA titles knows that she is a killer on the final lap. She’s not unbeatable (Elle Purrier outkicked her in this race in 2018) but she’s not someone you want to see on your shoulder with 50 meters to go. As mentioned above, she’ll have an extra 800 prelim in her legs for mile the final compared to many of her competitors (of course some of them will have an extra 800 as compared to Jones if they anchor the DMR), but that probably won’t be enough to stop her.
If someone is to spring the upset, it will probably be Penn State’s Danae Rivers. Though Rivers is the reigning 800 champion, she was ranked just 8th in that event and has struggled with 800 prelims in the past — in 2019, she only made the NCAA indoor final as a time qualifier and didn’t even make the final outdoors. Meanwhile, she’s an excellent miler (4:10 1500/4:29 mile PBs) who finished third at NCAAs as a true freshman in 2017. So her decision to run the mile in Albuquerque isn’t as crazy as it might seem. And with her 800 background, she may be the only woman in this field truly capable of challenging Jones in a kick.
JG prediction: Jones is just too good. I think she wins her first NCAA mile title, and I don’t think it will be particularly close.
Women’s 5,000: Weini Kelati goes for NCAA title #3
(final Friday 9:55 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Katie Izzo JR Arkansas 15:13.09 2 Weini Kelati JR New Mexico 15:14.71 3 Bethany Hasz JR Minnesota 15:25.33 4 Carmela Cardama Baez SR Oregon 15:25.41 5 Makena Morley SR Colorado 15:26.22 6 Mercy Chelangat SO Alabama 15:37.35 7 Joyce Kimeli SO Auburn 15:37.82 8 Abbey Wheeler JR Providence 15:40.67 9 Maria Mettler JR Air Force 15:49.58 10 Cailie Logue SO IA State 15:50.15 11 Emily Martin SR New Mexico 15:52.37 12 Aoibhe Richardson SR San Francisco 15:52.54 13 Devin Clark SR Arkansas 15:59.09 14 Kelsey Chmiel FR NC State 16:02.06 15 Emeline Delanis SR Boston College 16:03.09 16 Jessica Drop JR Georgia 16:04.15
New Mexico’s Weini Kelati owns NCAA titles outdoors (2019 10k) and in cross country and will look to complete a career sweep with her first indoor title this weekend. This race is set up nicely for her: Kelati gets to run on her home track, at altitude — a big advantage over #1 seed Katie Izzo of Arkansas. Plus, studs Dani Jones, Whittni Orton, and reigning champ Alicia Monson all opted for other events, eliminating three serious threats before the gun is fired.
Kelati’s approach, typically, is to hammer from the front, and with a seed time 10+ seconds ahead of all but Izzo, it makes sense here; most of her rivals coming up from sea level would probably prefer to play sit and kick.
The question, then, is whether Izzo, the SEC 3k/5k champ, can hang with Kelati. The last time they met, at BU in December, Izzo did more than just hang; she beat Kelati, clocking 15:13.09, the third-fastest time in NCAA history. But can she summon the same level of performance at 4,958 feet?
JG prediction: If Izzo wins this race, it will cap an incredible comeback story. Izzo broke her tibia and fibula while running for Cal Poly at the 2016 NCAA West Regional cross country meet so badly she had to have a titanium rod inserted in her leg; she went almost two years between races. But she has thrived as a grad transfer at Arkansas, finishing third at NCAA XC to lead the Hogs to their first team title, and is now in position to challenge for an individual title on the track.
Unfortunately for Izzo, they don’t hand out NCAA titles based on who has the best story (and if they did, Kelati’s story would be competitive — she arrived in the US from Eritrea in high school, speaking very little English). They award them to the best athlete. And in this case, that’s probably Kelati.
Women’s 3,000: Whittni Orton attempts to cap breakout season with first NCAA title
(final Saturday 8:25 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Whittni Orton SR BYU 8:49.63 2 Alicia Monson SR Wisconsin 8:53.69 3 Weini Kelati JR New Mexico 8:54.66 4 Ella Donaghu JR Stanford 8:54.72 5 Katie Izzo JR Arkansas 8:55.67 6 Katie Rainsberger JR Washington 8:56.24 7 Carina Viljoen SR Arkansas 8:56.63 8 Grace Forbes FR Rice 8:56.82 9 Jessica Lawson SO Stanford 8:59.38 10 Makena Morley SR Colorado 9:00.36 11 Allie Schadler JR Washington 9:00.89 12 Carmela Cardama Baez SR Oregon 9:01.67 13 Melany Smart FR Washington 9:06.52 14 Nicole Fegans JR GA Tech 9:06.92 15 Sara Freix SR Virginia Tech 9:07.16 16 Hannah Steelman JR Wofford 9:07.19
Kelati is my pick to win the 5,000, but she’ll have it much tougher in the 3,000. The shorter distance works against her, as does the presence of BYU’s Whittni Orton and Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson, two studs who will be absent from the 5,000.
A solid miler entering this year (she was 7th in the NCAA mile in 2018 and 8th in the 1500 last year), Orton has taken a major step forward as a senior and now ranks among the very best in the NCAA. It began in cross country, where she finished 7th to propel BYU to a runner-up NCAA finish, but she has truly blossomed come track season, running huge PRs at all distances — 15:22 in the 5,000, an NCAA-leading 8:49 in the 3k, and a 4:29 mile, giving World Championship finalist Nikki Hiltz all she could handle in that race.
Monson won the 5,000 last year indoors and was the NCAA runner-up in cross country. She also owns the third-fastest 3k in NCAA history, at 8:45, though that time came from last year (Monson’s best this year is a very respectable 8:53, which she ran to beat Kelati at Millrose). Monson tried the 5k/3k double last year at NCAAs and was totally spent for the 3k (she wound up 10th). This year, she’s scaled back to one event.
Stanford’s Ella Donaghu (4:11 1500) and Washington’s Katie Rainsberger (4:09 1500) could also be factors in a tactical race, though Orton beat both of those women badly in Seattle on February 14.
One other woman who probably won’t win but should be mentioned is Rice’s Grace Forbes. A true freshman, Forbes, who was 87th at NCAA XC in November, slashed her PB from 9:13 to 8:56 at BU on February 28 to qualify for NCAAs. That’s a remarkable time for a freshman; her progression is worth keeping an eye on.
JG prediction: Should Kelati or Izzo win the 5k in dominant fashion, they’d have to be considered contenders here, but Orton and Monson are the women to beat. Orton has the disadvantage of doubling back from the DMR (Monson will be fresh), but we’ve seen someone pull off the DMR/3k double twice in the last three years (Dani Jones in ’17, Oregon’s Jessica Hull in ’19), so it’s definitely doable. Orton FTW.
Women’s distance medley relay: BYU is favored
(final Friday 10:45 p.m. ET)
School Seed =============================================================================== 1 BYU 10:53.95 2 Stanford 10:55.89 3 Washington 10:56.23 4 Arkansas 10:57.08 5 Oregon 10:59.39 6 Colorado 10:59.68 7 Wake Forest 11:01.81 8 Michigan 11:02.00 9 New Mexico 11:02.10 10 Michigan State 11:02.82 11 Virginia Tech 11:03.08 12 Florida 11:04.00
BYU was second at NCAAs last year, and with Jessica Hull, the anchor of Oregon’s title team, turning pro, the Cougars take over the mantle as presumptive favorites. BYU brings back its 1200 and 800 legs, Anna Camp (2:03/4:15) and Lauren Ellsworth (2:02/4:18), and upgrades on the 1600, trading in 2019 anchor Erica Birk-Jarvis (4:13/4:34) for Whittni Orton (4:12/4:29). With that crew, the Cougars recorded the top mark in the NCAA of 10:53.95 — and that came in their second DMR in as many days, as their initial attempt had to be re-run due to an officiating error that saw the third leg run 600 meters instead of 800.
Often, the DMR comes down to who has the best anchor leg. With Dani Jones (presumably) not running for Colorado, that leaves BYU (Orton), Stanford (4:33 miler Julia Heymach, 4:11 1500 runner Ella Donaghu, or 4:11 1500 runner Jessica Lawson) or Washington (4:09 1500 runner Katie Rainsberger) with the best anchors in the field. Conveniently, those three schools are also the top three seeds, so it seems a pretty good bet one of them ends up winning. And Orton, Donaghu/Lawson, and Rainsberger are all running the 3k, so all will be fresh for the DMR anchor — just how we like it.
JG prediction: Of the anchor options on the top three schools, Orton has had the best season, though Rainsberger did show promise with a 4:12 1500 at BU two weeks ago. If Rainsberger can return to her 2017 form (4th NCAA 1500, 10th USA 1500), she could challenge Orton, but for now I’ll stick with Orton and BYU.